Commentary Sexual Health

Talking to Your Kids About Sex Is Good for Them, So Here’s How

Martha Kempner

No one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

Talking to your kids about sex can be an awkward or intimidating prospect—but new research confirms that it’s very important to do so anyway. Kids whose parents braved these conversations are more likely to practice safer sex, which means they are less likely to face an unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined 52 studies, spanning 30 years and covering over 25,000 adolescents. It found a “significant positive association between parent-adolescent sexual communication and safer sex behavior among youth. This effect was robust across use of condoms and contraceptives, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, and younger and older samples.”

In plain language, that means that kids who talked with their parents about sex were more likely to use condoms and other contraceptive methods when they became sexually active.

There are a few caveats. The results were stronger for girls than for boys, and stronger when the parent involved in the conversation was the mother rather than the father. The authors point out, however, that these results may say more about the biases in how we behave rather than the actual limitations of parental communication. The research suggests that moms are more likely than dads to have the conversation (and more studies look at mother-child communication than father-child), and the way we address girls and boys about sex may be different based on societal concerns.

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The takeaway from this study is pretty simple, however: Talking to your kids about sex will protect them. Moms and dads should be talking to sons and daughters.

But if this sounds at all intimidating, here are some tips to get you going from my experience as a sexual educator and a mom.

It’s Usually Not About Sexual Behavior

The biggest barrier to parent-child communication may be a misunderstanding of what these conversations are going to entail. The idea of talking to your own child about intimate bedroom details is likely off-putting. But no one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

They’re about bodies, health, relationships, and values. When children are young, you’re talking about who has what body parts, what we should call them, why we don’t show most people our penises or vulvas, and how babies are made. These conversations not only educate kids when they’re little, but can also be a good entry point into more explicit conversations as adolescents grow into teenagers. As they age, you’ll need to talk about puberty and how their bodies will change and hormones will take over their once-rational brains. Discussions about STIs, unintended pregnancies, and how to avoid them are also important, as are talks about what makes a relationship valuable and when the correct age is to start dating and have sex.

It’s Not a One-Time Thing

Parents should stop thinking about the awkward “birds and the bees” talk, which probably came too late anyhow, as the start and end to all conversations about sex. Instead, think of sex as one of the many topics that you discuss with your kids any time it happens to come up. If a friend’s mom is pregnant, you can tell your preschooler that the baby isn’t in her tummy (and she didn’t swallow it), it’s in her uterus. If your six-year-old isn’t doing a good job wiping after going to the bathroom you can point out that it’s important to keep our genitals clean, like we do any other part of our body. If you’re 10-year-old just made a new friend who has two dads talk about same-sex relationships, and if she asks how you can be born if you have two dads go ahead and discuss adoption and surrogate mothers. When your 14 year-old finds out that his crush has a crush on his teammate, you can talk about heartbreak and how the key to a good relationship is to find someone who really does like you back. 

Television is also a fabulous entry for giving information. Shows made for young people constantly portray relationship drama and at least hint at sex. Use the latest plotline to give your opinion. Ask if they think the CW hotties were using condoms, or if the Teen Moms are making young parenting look too glamourous.

Commercials work too. My 9-year-old and I watch a lot of HGTV. Though the shows are fine for audiences at any age, in the last few weeks I have had to explain erections lasting more than four hours and vaginal dryness, thanks to advertisers.

They’re Not Too Young

There is no reason that my 9-year-old needs to know about erectile dysfunction or lubrication after menopause, which won’t affect her for years, but there’s also no reason for me not to answer her questions and there are age-appropriate ways to discuss almost everything.

The first time we discussed contraception, for example, she was only 4 years old. We’d left her new baby sister at home with Nana and gone to town to pick up dinner. We ran into a woman who told us she had five kids. My daughter panicked (one baby sister was clearly enough) and asked if I was going to have more. I said no. She wanted to know how I knew that. So, I reminded her of the conversation we’d had when I told her I was pregnant and about the sperm and the egg, and then simply explained that I took a medicine that meant I didn’t make any eggs. She was relieved.

I think it’s important to note that she may have known about the pill at that point, but I had yet to tell her about vaginal intercourse. When we talked about how I got pregnant, she never asked how the sperm got to the egg, so I didn’t bother telling her. There’s no need to get all the information out at once, lest you overwhelm them or think some answers may be too complicated or explicit. In fact, it can be best to answer only those questions asked, and add only if your kid asks more. As I mentioned, most of the conversations aren’t about sex itself.

Starting young is great because then you can use each conversation as a building block for the next. By the time I was explaining what the Cialis commercial was about to my daughter we had already gone over the fact that penises get hard during sex. (Of course, I still had no explanation for why a long-lasting erection is okay at three hours and 58 minutes but needs immediate medical attention at four hours, or why the people are in separate bathtubs on a mountaintop.)

Give the Information Out Slowly

The building-blocks approach is also helpful because it means you don’t have to give too much information at one time. Regardless of age, kids glaze over after just a little while. Most of the time a simple and direct answer to a question is best; if the kid wants more information, he’ll ask for it.

If you’re asked what herpes is after a Valtrex commercial airs, you don’t have to go into a long discussion of cold sores or the difference between a virus and bacteria. All you have to say is that there are some infections that can be spread when people have sex, that these are called STIs, and that’s why it’s important to protect yourself. Then wait for questions. Depending on the child’s age and curiosity level, that may be enough. If it’s not, answer the next question and the next as simply as you can.

This way you don’t overwhelm your child or give more information than he or she can handle. More importantly, though, you establish yourself as someone who is willing to answer questions, so that as they get older and the questions become more complicated and more personal, you will be the go-to resources instead of the less trustworthy Internet or friends.

They’re Not Too Old

One of the good things the JAMA study showed is that kids listen to their parents even as they get older, which means that we have the opportunity to keep talking after they’re already having sex. These conversations can be awkward but they are a great opportunity to give more information and all-important relationship advice. I recently did a condom demonstration via Facetime for a friend’s teenager because my friend and I were worried that she was not using them correctly. And when she mentioned during that discussion that her partner had suggested taking the condom off completely on the grounds that it would “feel better”—we got to talk a little about why that was a bad idea and how to tell him it wasn’t going to fly.

Don’t worry if you haven’t had any conversations yet. No matter how old your children are, you can start talking today.

You Don’t Have to Know (or Share) Everything

The last piece of encouragement I will add is that nobody expects you to know everything, get it all right, or be perfectly comfortable. If you’re asked an informational question that you don’t know the answer to, offer to look it up on the Internet and share what you learn. My kids ask me science questions all the time—things I probably once knew about the Earth’s rotation or how our eyes really see colors—and I have to admit I have no idea. So I look it up and tell them later. Just be sure to follow through.

If you flub an answer or get caught off-guard, just keep going. When my oldest finally asked how the sperm got to the egg, and I did have to explain vaginal intercourse, I giggled. A lot. But I finished my explanation and answered her questions.

As for the scariest part of talking about sex—sharing details of your own sex life—that’s a personal decision. You can share when you think they’re ready, or if you think a story from your own life will help them in theirs. Or, you can tell them that you’d rather keep those details to yourself, but you’re happy to answer their questions in a more general way.

For now, all my kids know is what they’ve been able to piece together from our talks on reproduction—Daddy and I did that twice. Someday that will change but we’re taking it slow.

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